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The Nice iTunes Tracks

The Nice

From The MOODY BLUES to The MOVE to PROCOL HARUM, many of Britain’s post-beat and psychedelic outfits were turning from arty pop groups to symphonic prog-rock precursors, and The NICE were at its core from their formation in May 1967. Sadly, with the advent of the aforementioned prog movement, the group had went their separate ways after three years and a spread of some groundbreaking albums. Classically-trained kingpin keyboard player extraordinaire, Keith Emerson, would find a niche in the 70s heading symphonic showpiece supergroup EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER.
Founded in London, England, as a sideline to their back-up work for R&B/soul singer P.P. ARNOLD, by former Gary Farr & The T-Bones alumni, Keith Emerson, frontman Lee Jackson and Ian Hague, The NICE finally broke from the shackles of just an ordinary backing act to become a fully-fledged recording act in their own right. Substituting drummer Hague for ex-ATTACK buddy Brian Davison, while adding guitarist David O’List, the 4-piece performed in front of their largest audience to-date at the National Jazz & Blues Festival.
A precocious talent, Emerson began playing professionally in his late teens as pianist in various R&B bands, before he first found real success playing Hammond organ. An early trick was to stick a knife (gifted to Keith by NICE roadie Lemmy) into the keys of his instrument, holding notes in order to play with more complexity, but also to facilitate the hijinks he would become famous for (he would later fix a board to his amplifier rig in order to throw his knives at it). It was hearing Walter Carlos’s seminal `Switched On Bach’ album that proved the defining moment in his career, and Emerson, purchasing one of the first modular Moog synthesizers with which the album was made, soon became the leading exponent of this new sound. From the very beginning Emerson had made a habit of re-interpreting works by other composers in his own grandstanding style, often to stunning effect. The addition of the Moog to his arsenal catapulted his appropriations into interstellar overdrive, and he never looked back. Throughout the course of his career, he would draw from a diverse list of “influences”, ranging from Bach, Bartok and the Bernstein’s (Leonard and Elmer) to Beethoven, Berlioz and DYLAN, although he wasn’t always diligent in crediting his sources.
Being part of Andrew Loog Oldham’s rising Immediate roster (SMALL FACES, P.P. ARNOLD, etc.), the genre-busting quartet The NICE moved in various potpourri musical directions, although a debut 45, `Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack’, courted examples of Stateside bubblegum such as The TURTLES or even The LOVIN’ SPOONFUL. Delayed slightly for American release, the outfit slowly got into gear through their debut long-player, THE THOUGHTS OF EMERLIST DAVJACK (1967) {*5}, the name coming through an amalgamation of the initial letters of their surnames. The album unceremoniously flopped; their undisciplined mixture of heavy psych-blues, soul, jazz and classical overtones (highlighted by karate keysman Keith in JIMI HENDRIX axeman aplomb), much-too-much and ahead of its time for the majority of psych-cum-prog fans just getting used to the likes of PINK FLOYD. But for the mind-blowing group arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s `Rondo’ (interpolating J.S. Bach’s `Toccata & Fugue In D Minor’) and two worthy finale pieces: `Dawn’ (an inspiration to Swiss prog-sters BRAINTICKET) and the mournful `The Cry Of Eugene’, the record was definitely one for the timepiece collector and connoisseur.
The summer of ‘68 had a change in fortunes for The NICE when they surprised many with their near Top 20 UK hit rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s `America’ (from `West Side Story’). Banned in the States, however, where offence was taken to their promotional poster featuring the recently deceased Martin Luther King, Bobby and John F. Kennedy, the band kicked up a storm of protest during a performance at The Royal Albert Hall, in which they burned an American flag, riling Bernstein enough to prevent the 45 being issued across the big pond.
Sophomore set ARS LONGA VITA BREVIS (1968) {*7} – meaning “Art is long, life is short” – paved the way for the emerging progressive rock scene, but it also diminished the responsibilities of O’List who left the trio during its recording. So without a guitarist (although STEVE HOWE of YES had been touted as a temp), the trio combined dinky ditties like `Daddy, Where Did I Come From’, `Little Arabella’ and `Happy Freuds’ to contrast with “longa” pieces such as the side-length title track in four movements and Sibelius’ `Intermezzo From The Karelia Suite’; the latter dirge snatched for the odd theme to political affairs TV programmes.
One half recorded in the studio and one half live, the eponymous NICE (1969) {*8} took the trio into new territories, even the Top 3 in Britain. Duly issued in 1970 as `Everything As Nice As Mother Makes It’, the record sustained them as one of the UK’s underachieving exports – would America ever forgive them for `America’? Almost punk in its execution, `Azrael Revisited’ (an earlier version was flip side of the aforementioned debut 45), the set was also highlighted by a beautiful reinterpretation of TIM HARDIN’s `Hang On To A Dream’. Side two was recorded live at Fillmore East, New York, and two examples of the dexterity and showmanship came no better than an updated take of `Rondo 69’ and a 12-minute re-tread of BOB DYLAN’s `She Belongs To Me’.
Not content with leading the way for combining classical concertos with neo-jazz and pop-rock, The NICE and conductor Joseph Eger completed their most ambitious set to-date: the Top 5 FIVE BRIDGES (1970) {*8}. Recorded for Charisma Records the previous October (the 17th) at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls (but premiered a week earlier for the Newcastle Arts Festival) and basically a suite based on the “five bridges” over the River Tyne, the first side comprised a handful of part-orchestra-led pieces culminating in the glorious `Finale – 5th Bridge’. Side two re-introduced `Intermezzo “Karelia Suite”, while there was room for Tchaikovsky’s `Pathetique (Symphony No.6, 3rd Movement)’, J.S. Bach’s `Brandenburg Concerto No.6’ – this time segued with a funky version of DYLAN’s `Country Pie’ – plus creepy sign-off Emerson/Jackson piece `One Of Those People’. By the time of its release that June, The NICE had already played their final gig in Berlin at the end of March, while Keith took a proverbial stab at piecing together classical-prog supergroup EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER with former members of KING CRIMSON and ATOMIC ROOSTER; Davison, on the other hand, formed EVERY WHICH WAY; he subsequently reunited with Jackson in REFUGEE (alongside PATRICK MORAZ).
On the back of some healthy ELP sales, the posthumous ELEGY (1971) {*6} reached the Top 5, but on closer inspection it basically re-tracked nuggets from the Fillmore East concert and sat them next to an extended 9-minute take of their third DYLAN cover, `My Back Pages’. All the albums have since been re-issued in all their full CD glory with expansive track listings to boot or boost. Delete as appropriate.
Just when one thought The NICE had had their day, the 60s were fast-forwarded to the 00s via a surprise reformation in 2002 that saw EMERSON, Jackson, Davison and younger guitarist Dave Kilminster play live in Glasgow. The subsequent concert double-set, VIVACITAS (2003) {*6} combined NICE nuggets with material from Keith’s ELP timespan (`Tarkus’, `Hoedown’ and `Fanfare For The Common Man’ included alongside solo closer `Honky Tonk Train Blues’). Sadly, Brian Davison was to die of a brain tumour 15th April 2008. Tragically, EMERSON was to commit suicide by a gunshot to the head on 10th March 2016.
© MC Strong 1994-2002/GRD-SW 2007/2012 // rev-up MCS Mar2016

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